Today on Cardboard Gods guest writer Ted Anthony marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of a bad day for Rennie Stennett. Anthony, a journalist for The Associated Press, has been a national and foreign correspondent and has covered, among other things, China, Iraq, Afghanistan and how American culture is changing in the 21st century. He is the author of the cultural history Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song (Simon & Schuster, 2007). A Pittsburgh native, he was deeply traumatized as a boy when his parents dragged him off by the hair to Asia in 1979, the year the Pirates won the World Series. They have not done so since.
by Ted Anthony
He looks off camera, to the side, as if distracted by something coming toward him. And something was.
Rennie Stennett was one of the best second basemen of the 1970s. That’s saying something, given that Rod Carew spent half of the 1970s at second base and names like Willie Randolph and Joe Morgan were also occupying the bag in those years.
Stennett could run, he could field, and oh — could he hit in the clutch. On Sept. 16, 1975, as his card trumpets on the back, he went 7 for 7 in a nine-inning game. What it doesn’t say is that his hits were part of one of the most lopsided games in baseball history: The Pirates beat the Cubs, 22-0. We in Pittsburgh don’t have games like that anymore. It would be a consummation devoutly to be wished.
Stennett was a thrilling part of the 1976 Pirates, a team that, in retrospect, I loved even more than the 1979 “Fam-a-lee.” This was “The Lumber Company,” a team full of Stargells and Hebners and Zisks and Candelarias and Mooses and Robinsons and a young rightfielder named Dave Parker whose days as a battery throwee were still in the future. We even had Mario Mendoza, he of the now-famous line. I can still hear Milo Hamilton saying our second baseman’s name in a deep voice: “And RENN-ie STENN-ett pulls into third with a standup triple.”
Yet Rennie Stennett is mostly forgotten, because of what happened 35 years ago today.
It was August of 1977, and we had embarked upon the first major cross-country trip of my childhood. The Pirates were well en route to a respectable five-games-out finish in the NL East behind their rival of the time, the Phillies, when my parents poured me into the back of my mother’s powder-blue Maverick. With my father driving, we set out from Pittsburgh to Jacksonville Fla., to see my uncle and many cousins.
We largely bypassed the interstates and pointed our car toward Plains, Georgia. You’ll recall, of course, Plains, Georgia — home to the freshly minted president, peanut farmer Jimmy Carter, and, perhaps more famously, home to the gas station belonging to his brother, the indefatigable Billy. (Wikipedia enshrines Billy this way: “Carter’s name was occasionally used as a gag answer for a Washington, D.C. trouble-maker on 1970s episodes of The Match Game.”)
Pre-iPod, pre-XM, AM radio was our constant companion. Local stations faded in and out as we passed through West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina. Various iterations of Stuckey’s appeared at the side of the road, then receded. We stopped only if my mother wanted some pecan clusters or if I needed a new pack of Colorforms or a bag of pork rinds. On the morning of Aug. 17, I remember hearing some Southern-accented announcer cut in on a song — was it Alan O’Day’s “Undercover Angel”? — to tell us that someone named Elvis Presley had died the previous day. “The King is dead,” I remember the announcer saying. My mother, generally progressive when it came to the arts, had this to say: “I didn’t much like his music.” I made a mental note to find some and prove her wrong.
And so we proceeded to Plains. We stopped at Billy’s gas station, and he wasn’t there, but we came away with a lot of peanut memorabilia and a few 7-ounce Pabst Blue Ribbons etched with “Billy” and the date in an electric pencil by some forgotten attendant. These would be great traders to build my beer can collection. We vacationed in Florida, saw cousins, went to beaches, sweated. And then, a few days later, we drove back.
On the way home, an announcer came on during some South Carolina sportscast and told us that Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Rennie Stennett had broken his right leg while sliding into, of all things, second base. He was batting .336 at the time. He was gone for the season and, though we didn’t know it at the time, for good.
We kept hurtling north, back to Pittsburgh. The summer of 1977, fading, was hurtling equally fast toward fourth grade. Rennie Stennett’s ankle was broken, and he would not become the Hall of Fame second baseman I was certain he was destined to be. He would leave the Pirates quietly at the end of 1979, their year of triumph. His career, an asterisk to Pirates history, would peter out early in Reagan’s first term.
Somehow things weren’t what they should be anymore. Elvis was dead, and I knew that mattered, but I wasn’t quite certain why. I certainly couldn’t drink the PBR from Billy’s gas station, and I didn’t even want to yet. Disco was rotting my brain. And there was Rennie Stennett on his baseball card, gazing off camera a bit warily as if something was hurtling toward him. And something was.